‘Help my unbelief’:
Day of reflection on the Real Presence at St. Stephen, Martyr, in Chesapeake

Father Charles Ssebalamu, pastor of St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, holds the parish’s new monstrance. The parish’s Giving Tuesday campaign raised funds for its acquisition. "This endeavor aligned seamlessly with the overarching objective of our parish's year-long pursuit of Eucharistic Revival – a mission aimed at deepening the comprehension of the True Presence,” said Christina Kieser, director of adult faith formation at St. Stephen. (Photo/David Hollingsworth)

They are words as familiar as home. We hear them on feast days, and at first Communions, and on quiet summer Sundays in Ordinary Time.

“Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body, which will be given up for you.”

They are words, too, that can serve as stumbling blocks to our faith.

It still looks like bread. It still tastes like wine.

How can Christ be truly present in the Eucharist?

St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, held a day of reflection on Saturday, Feb. 3, which centered on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Around 60 people attended the event, titled, “Lord, I believe … Help My Unbelief.”

“It’s good for people to know that it’s normal to have ebbs and flows in their faith,” said Christina Kieser, St. Stephen director of adult faith formation. “That’s why we have community to sustain us.”

The community of St. Stephen has been gathering throughout this year, embracing the spirit of the National Eucharistic Revival – a project launched by U.S. bishops to encourage the faithful to renew their relationships with Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

The parish has hosted guest speakers, sponsored a youth art contest, and held Adoration Fridays. A men’s bonfire night called “Holy Smokes!” has proved particularly popular.

“We’ve seen a lot of younger men and men who don’t usually come to Mass turn out,” Kieser said, “so that’s been wonderful.”

“People are returning to their faith,” said Father Charles Ssebalamu, pastor of St. Stephen, Martyr. “We are grateful to God.”

‘A hard saying’

“This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” St. Stephen catechist Chris Emsley asked, addressing the audience who had gathered in the church commons.

“This is not a question from the 21st century,” he said. “This is a statement from the disciples in the Gospel of St. John. So, if you struggle with the teaching, you are in good company.”

When we turn to Scripture, we find, however, that the miracle of the Real Presence is not a swerve from tradition, but rather a fulfillment of God’s promise. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God provides life-saving food that sustains us, both physically and spiritually, Emsley said.

There is the meal of the Passover lamb that saved the Jewish people from the final plague in Egypt, and there is manna from heaven, the supernatural bread that sustained them in the desert.

In the Gospel of John, after Jesus performs the miracle of the loaves and fishes, feeding a crowd of 5,000 people, he promises his followers the food of eternal life, saying: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53).

Many of Jesus’ followers were shocked by this, Emsley said.

“They left, and they walked away, and Jesus let them go,” he said. “In the end, he turns to Peter and asks, ‘Are you going to leave, too?’”

“Peter says, to paraphrase: ‘I don’t know what you are talking about, but I do know you. And I trust you.’”

Belief in the Real Presence is not a blind faith, but a faith based on trust, on our relationship with Christ, Emsley said.

“We live in two realities. God reaches out to us physically and spiritually. In the Eucharist, he does both,” he said.

Mind and heart

As difficult as it can be to believe that God changes bread and wine into flesh and blood, it can be more difficult to believe that God can transform us, St. Stephen catechist Brooke Fitzharris said.

In a talk titled, “Making the 18-inch Journey from Your Head to Your Heart,” she discussed how we might bridge that gap between an intellectual understanding and a heartfelt faith.

“The path to spiritual fitness is not all that different from the one to physical fitness,” Fitzharris said. Often, we wait for motivation to strike, hoping it will spur us to action, when, in reality, we need to start with action, she explained.

“We need to begin by beginning.  We need to get up off the couch,” she said.

The widow in the Gospel of Luke who gave out of her need did not know what good would come of it, or what would become of her, but she took the leap, anyway.

“It sounds simple, and it is simple,” Fitzharris said. “But simple is not easy.”

“Let’s not just go through the motions,” she said, adding that during the Eucharistic prayer, we can work to still our minds, to keep ourselves from distraction by focusing on the crucifix, by listening for the sound of the bells.

“Our senses can bring our minds and hearts back to where they should be: on Christ,” she said.

Teresa Shuma, a parishioner of St. Stephen, Martyr, said she appreciated Fitzharris’ advice on tuning into the details to help us focus during Mass.

“It’s easy to get distracted. I think that is something we can all understand,” she said.

After each presentation, attendees were invited to share their thoughts with those seated at their table. The discussions continued in special break-out sessions, including “Nurturing Faith in Teens and Young Adults,” by Kieser, and “Reaching Prodigals” by Dr. Jack Buchner.

“Don’t ever be afraid to discuss your faith,” especially with your children, Kieser said during one session. “Let them question. Questions are good because it shows that they care and that they are thinking about it. Let that be the source of your joy.”

A time to renew

At the end of the afternoon, before the attendees went into the sanctuary for an hour of Eucharistic adoration, Dr. Barbara Harrington, director of liturgy at St. Stephen, spoke on adoration basics.

We can begin, she said, simply by greeting Jesus as a friend who cares for us.

During Eucharistic adoration, we can tell Jesus of our worries. We can unload our burdens. “We can pray for people who will not pray for themselves,” she said.

After we have stilled our bodies and quieted our minds, we may want to take time to read from Scripture or a devotional work. “We Catholics are touchy-feely. We have water, wine, and bread in the sacraments,” Harrington said.

“We even have rose-scented incense,” she added, prompting laughter from the audience. “Prayer is a full-body experience.”

We can place ourselves in the Real Presence, and, in the words of National Eucharistic Revival prayer, we can ask, “Jesus living in the Eucharist, come and live in me.”

“Christ doesn’t tell us the ‘how,’” Emsley said. “But he does tell us the ‘why’: ‘So that I might abide in you.’”



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